Flash Boys and an Education in Liberal Arts

In an earlier blog post I had shared a quote from Tom Friedman’s interview of Laszlo Bock, senior VP in-charge of hiring at Google:

“…I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load.”

A little more disconcerting was another comment that Bock made which seems to suggest that aim of education is ‘learning to earn’ –

Or, he added, think of this headline from The Wall Street Journal in 2011: “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.” This was an article about a student who switched from electrical and computer engineering to a major in psychology. She said she just found the former too difficult and would focus instead on a career in public relations and human resources. “I think this student was making a mistake,” said Bock, even if it meant lower grades. “She was moving out of a major where she would have been differentiated in the labor force” and “out of classes that would have made her better qualified for other jobs because of the training.”

Personally, Wall Street Journal is the last place I would consider to figure out the purpose of education!

I think formal education needs to focus on liberal arts (Bock too recommends this).

Think of Michael Lewis’ latest book, Flash Boys, which is about High Frequency Traders (HFT) figuring out clever ways of making money by shaving off milliseconds in online share transactions. They spend millions in laying direct fibre-optic cable and microwave internet connections to stock-exchange servers and to place their server inside stock-exchanges, to gain an information advantage. 

The way this works is that when an investor places a trade online for buying shares in a company, the high frequency trader picks up this trade a few milliseconds before the trade reaches the stock-exchange server. The HFT then buys the stock from the stock-exchange and sells it to the investor for a little more. This may look like a small margin but when you multiply it with millions of dollars of trading that takes place every day the high frequency trader makes huge money.

This is unnecessary intermediation that adds no value and borders on cheating. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the US Attorney General have launched an investigation to see if this is equivalent of insider trading.

The sad part, as Michael Lewis notes in an interview with Charlie Rose, is that the HFT say that they are not doing anything illegal and hence this is a fair way of making money. Even worse, some young programmers find HFT really smart and cool. They seem to be missing the point that what HFT are doing is ethically wrong even if it is within the letter of the law.

Juxtapose this with what French economist (now being called Rockstar Economist), Thomas Piketty says in his book, ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ – that inequality is on the rise in America because of inheritance and extravagantly paid ‘super managers’. The American dream of ‘hard work leading to success’ is being belied and the ‘rags to riches’ story works out for only a few people because the system is now so structured that most of the times it is only the rich who become richer.

If an education in liberal arts is ignored, then chances are we will have more people like the high frequency traders who think successful life is only about finding clever ways of making money.

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